Sermon for 20th December – Nine Lessons and Carols

This morning we tell the Christmas story through the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Yet I wonder if you know that actually this tradition is only a little over a hundred years old when it was first used in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.  In fact many of our apparently long held Christmas traditions are relatively new when compared with the focus of their real purpose – to give thanks to God for the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies that a child would be born, a child who would change the trajectory of a broken world for all time.  The decoration of fir trees brought indoors for that purpose was originally a German custom brought to this country by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. The habit of Christmas cards also only began in Victorian times. And the practice of making Christingles is just over fifty years old. Yet all of these plus many others have become essential components of the way in which we celebrate this season and when we cannot enact them

we feel disappointed and somehow cheated of a proper Christmas.  I need not labour the point that this year will be different but different does not need to mean worse, it just means not the same as we’re used to, but as with everything that we are initially not used to we become accustomed to difference and may even grow to love it, just as we have those so-called traditions that were themselves new and different not that long ago. Our readings remind us of how life can change radically in an instant and while it doesn’t always seem that this is for the better at the time, when we reflect on those changes often, we can appreciate the need for them and how they have in fact improved our lives.  In Genesis we read of how Adan and Eve’s lives were irrevocably changed through one act of disobedience – how many lives are being changed irrevocably changed through acts of disobedience that endanger others, acts which like eating an apple may seem pretty innocuous but have a profound effect that the person committing the act may never know. Or worse still knowingly chose to disregard for their own purposes?  Our Genesis passage is often subtitled the fall of mankind – who would have thought that taking a bite out of an apple could have such catastrophic consequences. Who would have thought that the mutation of a tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, could wreck such havoc throughout the world?

Our reading in Genesis heralds a time of darkness that lasts for centuries to come…..yet as we move forward to time in which Isaiah was living, a time of sorrow and exile, we see the promise of light and hope. This mighty prophet foretells the good news of the child that will be born, the son that will be given, He that shall be known as Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. What comfort there is to be had in those words, words that promise the advent of the kingdom of God here on earth, if of course we not listen to them but keep them close to our hearts and act on them. And in these times, there is similar comfort to be had when we read of the determination of the scientists who are involved in the development of the vaccine that will help wipe out this deadly disease, providing, of course, we comply and accept the responsibility we have not just for those who are close to us but all of humanity. On we journey and read the words of Micah, often termed a minor prophet, but whose words again provide hope as they describe how from what was considered an insignificant source came the One who would change the world. And it is indeed from small acts that mighty things can happen. If each of us plays our seemingly small part in ensuring that the spread of the virus is limited what a life changing manifestation of the power of many working together for the good of all will be seen. Yes, we will have to live our lives differently and there will be sacrifice and pain in that but how much sweeter will the joy be when we can at last celebrate that the bitterness and sorrow the virus has caused has been eradicated.  We return to Isaiah who speaks of the tenderness of the Lord, who reminds us of the need to be attentive to the voice that will rally us in preparation for the arrival of the One who will reveal the glory of the Lord, the one who will bring the good news of the Lord’s saving power, if we but listen and act on what we hear. Many people are feeling alone and isolated in this season, and even more so following yesterday’s announcement. Many may be asking where God is in this mess, as they have every time the world is plunged into darkness. It is imperative that as Christians we remind ourselves and others that God is right here with us, weeping with us as we come to terms with the profound disappointment many are experiencing and hiding us tenderly that we might know His comfort in our pain. Hundreds of years pass and we find ourselves transported to a room, in a house where an angel visits a young girl, a young girl who is the epitome of faith and trust in God and whose obedience is the polar opposite of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, in that it reveals the light that will take away the darkness for all time. Mary’s life turns out very differently from what she no imagined it would be when growing up in an observant Jewish family – but how wonderfully different her life became and how thankful we all are that she allowed God to work His purposes out through her obedience. And then that marvellously simple account of Jesus’s birth – no ceremony, no fanfare, just a few lines describing the circumstances of the arrival of the Messiah into this broken world. We read of the shepherds who, after the shock of the appearance of the heavenly throng on the hillside, simply up sticks and go and find the baby of whom the angels sang. Then they do what we all do when something really good happens – we tell people about it and we encourage others to do the same. The shepherds had gone off to mind their sheep that dark and cold night with no clue as to how their lives would be transformed in a way they would never have imagined but which brought them much blessing and joy. We hear about the visitors from the east, who were nearly put off their stride by Herod, who was intent on subverting God’s plan for the world for his own selfish gain. But the wisemen were not so easily persuaded and through their openness to hearing and acting on God’s words, they too played their part in ensuring that good would triumph over evil and that the light would overcome the darkness. Just like the shepherds, they too emerged from their encounter with the Christ child with lives transformed and all because they had pursued a star over thousands of miles, their thirst for knowledge driving them on. How many millions of people have had their lives transformed because of their thirst for a better way of living, because they too had an encounter with Jesus that opened their hearts to His unconditional love. What can we do to encourage those around us to seek the peace and joy that Jesus brings when we make Him the focus of our lives?

We know through the engagement of so many in online worship that many are seeking that peace. We can see just from what is surrounding me in the sanctuary that people want to help others, that God’s kingdom is slowly being built, even if those who are part of the construction don’t even realise that they are! And finally, the power of John’s opening words – a microcosm of the prophecies we have heard and a wonderful encouragement of the light and the hope that will come through the Word made flesh. We need that light and hope as much today as the world needed it over two thousand years ago, perhaps even more so, and thus we pray, come Lord Jesus come. Yes Christmas will be different this year, profoundly so and I don’t in anyway undermine the challenges that will bring. But let us hold in our hearts and share with others the hope that arrived through the birth of a tiny baby in a dirty outhouse in a world which may seem so very distant from our own, but actually fundamentally is the same. A world that needs to recognise the power and the glory of God, our Heavenly Father, who was at the beginning of time, is now and ever shall be, the source of love.   Amen

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